Agatha Christie’s literary classic, Murder on the Orient Express, about a famous detective who is called to investigate a grisly murder aboard a train he is a passenger on, has been adapted to film several times. The best known adaptation is that of Sidney Lumet in 1974, who assembled a stellar cast to deliver an elegant and stylish interpretation. While Albert Finney does a reasonable job portraying Poirot in the midst of some of Hollywood’s finest, no one has ever been able to match the quintessential Poirot, played by David Suchet. Agatha Christie’s Poirot, as aired on ITV, is a television series showcasing some feature length film adaptations of Christie’s detective novels centring on Hercule Poirot. Suchet’s all-encompassing performance has made him almost inextricable from the iconic character, delivering one excellent performance after another.
This probably explains why it’s taken more than 40 years for a proper attempt at a remake with Suchet owning the part since 1989. After the latest Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, it seems that David Suchet’s rendition will never be topped. Branagh’s outrageous moustache would even make a Bond villain blush, adopting a more camp and action-ready version of Hercule Poirot. While his Belgian accent and demeanour show that it’s not a complete sendup, he seems to be competing with Albert Finney and Alfred Molina rather than even circling the stronghold that is David Suchet.
It’s a reasonable performance and while he retains some of the character’s trademark quips, it’s mostly memorable for his over-the-top moustache. Branagh does for Poirot, what Guy Ritchie did for the new Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. Both celebrated detective characters, they’ve been given an overhaul with a slick, star-studded and flamboyant reimagining suitable for mass consumption. Branagh necessitates a remake with some bold directorial choices, adopting a playful attitude towards the typically claustrophobic train carriage approach, using CGI landscape shots of the train weaving through the snowy countryside to give it more cinematic appeal and scale.
“Move over Magnum P.I…”
While sleek, Branagh overplays the CGI element with external shots that probably have more in common with The Polar Express than reality. While the artificial visual perfection has artistic merit and a level of consistency, it undermines the authenticity of this crime mystery thriller. This choice underlines the film’s values, opting for style over substance and turning a typically character-driven mystery classic into a superficial whodunnit? Fans of David Suchet and ITV’s quintessential Poirot, will be disappointed with this flashy Hollywood take, which lacks the same elegance, finesse and authenticity from production value to performance.
While lusciously shot, it’s the wealth of star power that keeps this locomotive on track. Branagh leads a cast including: Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley. The lineup is competitive against the 1974 version and makes the prospect of watching another iteration of a well known murder mystery twist more appealing. It’s wonderful to see Michelle Pfeiffer again, after what seems like ages. Playing into a self-reflective role, she really starts to shine in the third act. Another welcome return to form is from Johnny Depp, sinking his teeth into a supporting role with great gusto. While a glowing presence, the rest of the stellar and talented ensemble never really get enough screen time to truly shine.
Those who are new to Agatha Christie’s classic and iconic detective character will find it entertaining, while those who know the drill, will find it enjoyable thanks to the wealth of star power, yet somewhat underwhelming. It’s a competent adaptation, which understands the elegance and style, but doesn’t quite grasp the depth of character and necessary authenticity to ground Christie’s suave contrivances and improbable murder mystery. Branagh has the experience, but probably would have been better equipped if he had chosen one side of the camera. Yet, much like Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, it seems to be more interested in creating a franchise than being faithful to its origins, opening the possibility for a sequel and adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
The bottom line: Flamboyant